I used to just sit down and write. I would have an idea and I would just start writing and make it up as I went along. And while that might take you somewhere, it’s not the best way to go about things. Improvisation has its place in writing, don’t get me wrong. Many of my dialogues and scenes have been written with a huge amount of improvisation, but there has always been a target, a goal, an outline.
First, you need an idea. No idea, no story. This goes for any kind of story. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel or a video game. That idea can be anything. A character, an event, a series of events, a series of misfortunate events… 😉 List those ideas, places, characters. Brainstorm it!
Just write down everything and anything that interests you. Anything that you would like to write or draw. For me, it can be as little as a drawing that I do that inspired me to create a story around. Make a list of scenes that you would like to include. Things that you would really like to happen. Any snappy or meaningful dialogue you want to be said. For my latest graphic novel Cybernetic Punk, the main character Gabriel Kane is something of a smart ass, so I made a list of snarky one-liners.
Nothing on your list needs to make any sense and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how they will all be connected. And be warned, some of these ideas might not be used at all. But don’t completely throw away a good idea just because it doesn’t fit in this story. More than likely there will be other stories and it might work with that one.
Once you have an idea or even a kernel of one, it’s time to flesh it out. I personally suggest you work on your beginning and ending as soon as possible. Many times I’ll start an outline by only having the beginning or ending of the story. Having a good beginning is important to hook the reader and to make sure they read your book to the end. A good ending is just as important because you want the reader to finish your book satisfied enough to seek out the next one, right?
Work on the setup. Set the status quo. What are things like for the protagonist before this particular story. Make the audience like the character. I know that’s easier said than done. Try to create some factor that will get the reader sympathizing with the main character. If your character is a person of action then start by showing the character in action. The beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark is probably the best example and is something that others (myself included) have copied countless times.
Does your setup answer the following questions? Who is the main character? What do they want? What is their life like? What challenges do they face? When is this story taking place? Where is it taking place? Is your main character here of their own fault or were they brought in? Are they here by accident?
I very early on explore my characters. I go online and search for actors I think would be great as them in a live action movie. I’ll also do tons of Googling environments for my story to take place. Doesn’t matter if it’s a sci-fi or contemporary love story, you’ll find something inspiring online. I throw all of those into Scrivener (my tool of choice. More on that in another post) and I make character sheets and lists of scene environments. Sometimes just looking through these images will awaken wonderful plot points and ideas.
Now mind you, more than likely you can’t use these inspirational pieces in the final work, because of copyright issues. They are there only as inspiration. The downside to this method of working is that sometimes (okay most times) I will spend too much time researching and not enough time writing or drawing.
Start to connect the ideas into a plot. Remember that each idea must have a reason for being in the story other than you thinking that it’s cool to write or draw. Every plot point must be something that believably drives the character forward. Even if they outwardly show no interest. If it is truly a plot point that no one cares about in the book, then no one reading it will care either. Take that sucker out of there!
You can start by taking those bullet point list of ideas and write a very short story from beginning to end. It doesn’t need to be more than a few paragraphs, a page at most. This can be extremely simple in form, almost like something a child would write. It’s sure to be full of plot holes and unbelievable plot points but it is a great way to get the whole story down on paper, or into your computer.
The main protagonist/protagonists need an obstacle. What do they need to overcome before the ending of the book? Is it a classic fantasy quest? Finding an ancient magical sword? Defeating an alien race? It doesn’t necessarily mean a concrete physical obstacle either. The main character could be determined to find their true love. Whatever it is the story needs an obstacle for the main character. If the character is just meandering through the book aimlessly, the reader will become bored and toss it aside.
Start the story as fast as possible. By that I mean don’t drag out the beginning of your story for too long. Feel free to set scenes up but you really need to grab the reader as soon as possible. A rule of thumb is to have the ideal plot point before the 25% mark of the book. That should be the point of no return. The point where the character is truly deep in the story, they have their motivation to go on. Hopefully, the reader is also motivated to continue with your book.
It’s good to keep in mind that as the book progresses, reaching the objective has to get harder for the protagonist. It can’t be too straightforward. Too linear.
And remember that the outline isn’t the full book. It’s more like a roadmap from one event to the other. A connect the dots of your eventual novel.